NIGERIA, who catapulted into the spotlight at the Africa Cup of Nations after their win against favourites Ivory Coast, seek their first final spot in 13 years when they meet Mali in tonight’s semi at Moses Mabhida Stadium.
Coach Stephen Keshi’s new-look Nigeria arrived here with all the characteristic bristle and swagger on Monday, and the Super Eagles – following their 2-1 quarterfinal win against the Ivorians on Sunday – certainly have the look of a team that could go all the way in the Afcon.
Nigeria have not won the African title since beating Zambia in the 1994 final in Tunis. That golden generation of the 1990s was always going to be hard to live up to. Still, they have remained an Afcon powerhouse, finishing third four times in a decade – 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010.
Keshi, the 1990s captain and defensive great, took criticism for selecting a squad that had many unknown quantities in it – such as Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves, scorer of the superb effort from range for Nigeria’s second against Ivory Coast.
The Super Eagles were unconvincing in the group stages, drawing against Burkina Faso and Zambia before a 2-0 win against Ethiopia. But in the west African derby against the star-studded Elephants, the young Nigerians showed their hunger and Keshi turned out to have a winning hand.
Now the Super Eagles will aim to go one better than all their semifinals of the previous decade, and reach their first final since they lost on penalties against Cameroon as co-hosts in Lagos in 2000.
But they will have to do it against a Mali side led by young French coach Patrice Carteron and experienced captain Seydou Keita, who have impressed with their ability to suppress opponents in the midfield.
Keshi knows plenty about the quality Mali has having coached them from 2008 to 2010. “We need to realise that Mali is a footballing nation,” Keshi said yesterday.
“I have a lot of respect for their players. Whatever Mali is doing now, they should be doing because they have quality players. And that’s why we’ll get ourselves prepared because the game might be tougher than against Ivory Coast.”
Keshi believes the conflict in their home country between Islamic separatists and government and French forces has given the Malians motivation. “It’s a shame what’s going on in Mali. But what is going on in the country is not something we should be part of. I know that’s where their players are getting their power from – to give something to people back home.”
Keshi has midfielder Fegor Ogunde back from injury but has a tough choice to drop Ogenyi Onazi, who came in and performed well against Ivory Coast, which freed up Jon Obi Mikel for a more attacking role.
Nigeria’s dangerous front three of Emanuel Emenike (three goals in the competition), Victor Moses (two goals) and Brown Ideye, will have taken note of how Bafana Bafana’s running game unsettled Mali in the quarterfinals.
But Stallions can do it
TALK of an epic Africa Cup of Nations final between heavyweights Ghana and Nigeria has already begun.
But first Ghana will need to overcome Burkina Faso in Mbombela Stadium tonight while Nigeria will be up against Mali at Moses Mabhida Stadium in the early match.
But in football nothing ever that cut and dried.
Ghana are always strong favourites, but will have at the back of their mind that they meekly bowed out before the final in the last three tournaments.
The Burkinabe will be keen to prove themselves as genuine title contenders and not a mere “distraction”.
“Burkina Faso are a good team,” conceded Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah. “Looking at their games so far, they’re very strong defensively. It’s not going to be easy. We’ll have to do extra work to get a win.”
Even though Ghana appear to have the edge – given they have won three of their four games here – the Stallions of Burkina Faso have been a revelation at this tournament.
Both sides have conceded the fewest goals in the tournament – Burkina Faso one while scoring six; Ghana scoring eight and shipping two.
Appiah has expressed belief in his players, among whom are stars such as Mubarak Wakaso, Asamoah Gyan, Christian Atsu and Kwado Asamoah.
His Burkina Faso counterpart, Paul Put, has put his faith in Moumouni Dagano and Jonathan Pitroipa in the absence of injured Alain Traore.
So for Burkina Faso to win would represent a major upset.
They will have left nothing to chance in their preparations for one of the biggest matches in the history of Burkina Faso football.
“We respect Ghana. They are a great team with great players,” said Put.
“Even though the pitch could be an advantage to us, Ghana are very good tactically and are quite a physical side. But we are playing in our ‘home’ since it’s our fifth game here and that also gives us motivation.
“We’’ve got nothing to lose because nobody was expecting us to reach the semifinals.
“Now we are relaxed and waiting for Ghana. Anything is possible in football.”
The Stallions have defied the odds in the tournament and with the pitch likely to give them a critical edge, they could well be the ones playing in the final on Sunday.
Appiah said the controversial Mbombela Stadium pitch here will not be a distraction for his players.
Much of the grass had been killed by a fungus in the build-up to the tournament after recent heavy rains and had to have a coating of sand, leaving it hard and patchy in a major embarrassment to the organisers.
Appiah sought yesterday to deflect attention from the issue.
“We need to compete whether the pitch is good or bad,” he told reporters.
“My players are all professionals and used to different conditions. Back home in Ghana we play regularly on far worse pitches. We need to take our mind off the pitch issue.” - KGOMOTSO SETHUSHA